Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software wrote a blog post about how creators should not read their forums. I don't think he's entirely wrong; a lot of creators -- game designers, artists, authors -- will probably never be able to read forums. But if you care about how your creations are received by actual consumers, you should.
Please understand that I mean that in a sort of "flowing wave" aikido sense, not in the sense that we need to sagely nod our heads and actually accept everything that people say and write. A lot of critical feedback is noise, a lot of it is only relevant to a small number of people (sometimes it's actually just one person), and a lot of it is misdirected or poorly expressed (i.e. the problem a person expresses is not actually the cause of their frustration).
There are some good reasons to read our forums, even with all of the problems they present. I don't think I need to explain the benefits of reading fan forums, but I do think it's worth explaining why those who are interested in fan feedback should just Deal With It™.
Sometimes audiences are stupid. Sometimes, it's us, the dumb creators, who assume idiotic things. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who's at fault; the issue is that there is a disconnect. "Communication" has the same roots as "commune" -- sharing, imparting, all that good stuff. It's our responsibility to give players the tools they need to play the game. It's the artist's responsibility to speak to the viewer using a visual language they can interpret. Not everyone will be up to the challenge -- and not everyone is in the intended audience -- but sometimes we make stupid choices and the viewer, audience, or reader really can't be blamed for not "getting it". Gauging perception is how we determine the extent to which our intended audience can "step up" and how much we need to "reach down". But to gauge perception, we need to accept that...
Reality Is Still Out There
This applies both to how you accept fan reactions and how you reconcile those reactions with what you know about the work you did. A nerd yelling in the forest is still angry, regardless of whether or not you're around to hear it. Ignoring critical feedback doesn't mean that feedback doesn't exist, and it doesn't mean that the person wasn't upset. If we have any interest in understanding the things that make people angry, we have to actually consider what they're saying. You can't separate the wheat from the chaff if you say, "Ugh that chaff is so gross!" and make a dismissive frowny face at the whole pile.
Conversely, what a person perceives, imagines, hypothesizes, and ultimately expresses does not necessarily have any bearing on reality. You know what you did. You know how you did it. You know the hours you put in. You know what you made and how it works. Anything a person says to the contrary is ultimately irrelevant unless they're in a position to legitimately defame you. Being able to step back and stabilize ourselves with the anchor of what "is" allows us to compare that to whatever wild things an individual perceives or claims to perceive. Keeping reality in mind gives us the mental distance we need to observe the flames without being burned. But...
If You Can't Take the Heat, GTFO
Many creators make products to sell to people. It's our job. Well over a million people just paid around $50-$60 USD for something I helped make. If it doesn't work right or if they feel the product was misrepresented, it makes sense that they would be upset. The extent to which their reaction is justifiable or reasonable depends on what's going on, but sometimes, we actually did do something really bad. Sometimes, we can step back and realize that if we experienced the same problem on our own, we would kick our own (collective) asses.
We have to accept that we make mistakes and we have to understand that it can really ruin someone's day. What we make is entertainment, but it's entertainment that can just as easily generate crushing lows as euphoric highs. A while ago, one of my co-workers received an e-mail from a gamer saying that she credits one of our games with saving her life. It shocked my co-worker. I've received similar e-mails in the past, going all the way back to to my early days at Black Isle. It shocks me every time it happens as well. I make video games, most of which I don't even think are anything to get excited about one way or another. Sometimes it's hard to accept how much what we make can impact people, positively and negatively, but this goes back to what I wrote above: reality is still out there. Sometimes we make people really happy. Sometimes we really upset them. Most people have no strong feelings about what we make. They look at it, poke at it, get bored, and move on. That's life. It's important to accept and understand these things.
Not To Be Understood, But To Understand
Our message boards aren't really there for us to make ourselves heard. They're not there for us to defend ourselves (though they can be useful for explaining things or clearing up confusion). They're there for people to express themselves to each other and to us. Sometimes, it can be useful for us to serenely participate or make some statements of fact, but often it's best just for us to take in the field, eliminate the noise, and tune in on the ideas and threads that can really help improve how our creations are received.
It doesn't matter if there isn't a consensus. It doesn't matter if there's noise or confusion or if there are ideas spread across many different threads. You're the arbiter. You can do it. Your job is to use critical thinking and make difficult choices.
And sifting through all of that stuff, you're going to see a lot of harsh words. Some of it will be at your company, some of it may be right at you. But after a while, you can take anything. You don't need to get angry. You don't need to feel bad. There's no word, no phrase, no type of insult, no emotion that you can't brush off. If you're honest with yourself and level with others, you can take whatever's thrown at you. Accept the helpful, even when it initially stings. Reject the irrelevant, even when it feels good. As long as we care about what our audiences think, we've got to be willing to dig through some mud to understand it. If it helps us refine our techniques, improve what we create, and be more honest with ourselves, it will all be worth it in the end.